Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Best Laid Genealogical Plans, Part III

In the longtime search for my birth father, information I eventually found among RootsWeb member family trees led me to a contact in Bryan County, Oklahoma. I decided to make the phone call as soon as possible, before I chickened out. I knew that if I thought about things too much, I would rationalize myself into a hole. I had to remind myself that the goal was to make contact with my birth father, and not to cringe and falter at the very edge of success.

I was not certain that the woman whose phone number I dialed that day in July 2009 was a relation, but in my gut, I knew absolutely that she was. When she answered the phone, I gave my name and mentioned that I was referred by the woman who had been researching the family for DAR status. She knew immediately who I meant. I said that I was also researching the family, and cautiously began to ask a few questions.

This woman in Bryan County, Oklahoma, whom I will call "Gem," had several brothers, it turned out. When I asked which of them had remained in the California Bay Area during the post World War II years, it narrowed the field significantly. I decided to take the leap, telling her: "I think I'm your niece." Much to my surprise, she didn't seem the least bit disturbed, and replied,"Oh yes, that would be 'JM.'" We continued to talk, and I asked if I could mail her some photographs for identification, which she agreed to.

A little over a week passed, and I made a second phone call to Oklahoma. Gem confirmed that the young man in the photograph with my mother was her older brother, JM. The man pictured with his wife and two children turned out to be JM's uncle, and not his brother... so much for hand-me-down information. No wonder I had such trouble equating the two brothers in census records... they were not brothers at all, and therefore, not part of the same nuclear family.

So, now I was speaking to my very own "Aunt Gem." What strange feelings I had as she told me about her family, including my paternal grandparents, who had been poor sharecroppers in the same location for many years. She told me of her older sister, who was lost to cancer, and of a younger brother who had also died within the past few years. He turned out to be the very same Georgia man whose obituary and tribute photo had haunted me on the internet. No wonder I had felt a connection, for he was my uncle.

Though Gem was warm and welcoming, she did not feel comfortable approaching her brother, JM, about me. Instead, she gave me his address and phone number in California, and encouraged me to call him myself. I could understand her position entirely, though it meant more agony preparing for a second phone call with uncertain outcome. JM, now in his early 80s and sick with diabetes, had been widowed a few years ago. He lives alone, but his son visits regularly to take care of things around the house and run errands. Now I knew that I also had a brother out there, and importantly, that I would not be upsetting anyone's wife or mother by making contact.

All those years I spent growing up in the Bay Area, JM had been reasonably close at hand, but invisible. My mother married when I was a little over a year old, and I was adopted by my new father soon after that; we had our own little family, and life went on. I asked Mom not too long ago if JM had ever seen me, and she was only aware of one time, when she allowed him to come visiting soon after I was born. After that, she did her best to sever all contact. It is one thing to cease all contact, but quite impossible to avoid the curiosity and yearnings of a child over a parent, no matter how old that child may grow to be, or how absent the parent may become.

I came to the realization that our genetic compositions have a powerful affect on personal perception. Flesh and blood is bonding in ways we cannot even touch with the conscious mind. A few years ago, I began corresponding with an older relative who was related to my maternal grandmother. My grandmother died when Mom was less than two years of age, and I hadn't much contact with that side of the family. Yet, when I finally met this calm, unassuming, and well-spoken woman and her middle-aged daughter for the first time, no words were needed. A feeling came over me that I already knew her; her body was like my body; her soul was like my soul; even the way she moved and talked felt electric to me... like something long lost that was now found. The obvious, but also the subliminal similarities of our shared genetics, hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. I will never forget that experience.

So, now I was left with a frightening task... of calling the man I knew to be, beyond a doubt, my genetic father. I could hardly believe my good fortune to have found him in time! But, what would I say to him? What would we talk about? What was his side of the story? Would he like me? Upon meeting him, would I feel the way I did when I met my grandmother's relative for the first time? Did he even want to hear from me?

I decided to send a letter first, partly to ease the burden on myself, but also to give JM some time to read and reread the letter before I attempted to talk to him. I took a lot of care in crafting that letter: not too mushy, not too urgent, not too expectant... but, with concern and just the right amount of interest expressed. At the end of the letter, I gave my contact information and said that I would wait a decent interval and then try to call him, but that he could call me first, if he preferred.

It wasn't as difficult to wait as I thought, because part of me dreaded having to make that phone call. I decided on the day, and then once again locked myself into the spare bedroom equipped with just my cell phone, a pad of paper, and a pen. As the ring tone began sounding, I realized with some measure of surprise that I was optimistic, and not afraid like when I made that first exploratory call to Aunt Gem.

The phone call was picked up, but it wasn't an older man's voice that greeted me. It was someone younger than JM: my brother, perhaps? I asked to speak with JM, and the younger man asked who was calling. "Chery," I said tentatively. "Who with?" he asked, as if I were a salesperson. Okay, I thought, he's going to make it extra tough on me. I quickly thought how best to put it so I wasn't letting the cat out of the bag. "I sent him a letter a few days ago," I said, and then I waited. I heard the man's voice in the background, directed to someone else. Suddenly, there was a soft, but final-sounding "click" at the other end. It took me a few seconds to realize that I had been hung up on.

Convicted, without a jury? How could this be? That evening, I did my best to not feel utterly devastated. Eventually, I reasoned that JM had not yet come to terms with this new situation and had obviously not told his son about me. JM had been caught in a compromised position when I happened to call at the wrong moment. It was totally understandable...

My husband then stepped in and tried to help, because he saw what an emotional dishrag I was becoming. While I was at work one day, he called JM and they had, as my husband put it, a very decent conversation. JM agreed to my sending another letter. My husband even went so far as to say that he liked JM.

An additional letter was mailed to California, this time with photographs. Another decent interval passed, and my husband called again to pave the way for me. Though the two of them had talked for a good half-hour the time before, this time JM simply greeted him with "Bye!" and promptly hung up on him. What was going on, we wondered?

Things got complicated at home for awhile for unrelated reasons, and then came the business of the holiday season. Several months passed before I learned that my husband had again made attempt to call JM. This time, it was JM's son who answered the phone. My husband gave his name, and then said, "I'm married to the half-sister you know nothing about." Hardly a moment passed before the dreaded click sounded again.

So, that's that, I thought, after learning of the most recent attempt. JM must have told his son, and now, they were apparently both avoiding contact with me. How does one deal with this kind of rejection? My one consolation is that it is not ultimately a personal rejection; how can it be, when they don't even know me?

I prayed the next morning, and the answer came that I should send a card. So, I did... one final act of reaching out to JM. I told him that I hoped he was doing alright. I explained why my husband had intervened, because I could not stand the thought of being hung up on again... because I care. I asked if he was nervous about my intentions, and tried to assure him that all I ever wanted was to meet him, and that it seemed he did not share any of my feelings. I said that if he changed his mind before it was too late, I would still be here. Finally, I told him, "God bless you."

So ended the search for my birth father. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the old saying goes, and my expectations were never unrealistic. Still, I was not quite prepared for being shut out entirely. On the bright side, I now know more than I'd ever hoped to about the paternal side of my family. Aunt Gem sent me a few up-to-date photographs. I also know something of my paternal heritage, of hard share cropping days during the Dust Bowl years, and of a family line stretching all the way back to the Isle of Skye, Scotland in the 16th century. If I choose, there is a lot more research to be done to explore my British heritage.

JM and my mother, sharing a happy moment in 1948

But, what I can't do is force open the heart of the person who is halfway responsible for my very life. I must accept that although this is a tragic loss of opportunity to me, it is perhaps something altogether different for JM. People have their own reasons for thinking and feeling the things that they do, and I can't easily put myself in his shoes. Time may heal, but, it never forgets, and that memory is forever etched within my DNA, and within that of my children, as it will be in their children, and so on.

In the meantime, the midnight oil continues to burn bright on the desktop of many a hopeful genealogist; the dawn eventually breaks on the horizon, and the cycle of life goes on...

The Best Laid Genealogical Plans, Part II

I was on a writing retreat at the Washington coast last June with a couple of good friends. We were sitting at a communal table, happily clicking away on our laptops, when one of them asked: "How's the search for your birth father going?" As fellow genealogy enthusiasts, my friends knew exactly how that long term void affected me emotionally. I replied something to the effect: "It's not going, I'm afraid." I had to admit, my sleuthing spirit was in a slippery slump.

Just before the retreat, I had gone "Googling" for my father's name once again and came up with a tribute website marking the death of a man in Georgia. His photograph haunted me. He didn't look familiar, but there was something about the look in his eye, and especially, the way he held his head. Did I sense a connection? Yet, there were some pieces of the puzzle that were not quite right: his age, and where he had lived for too many years, for a couple of things.

Through years of on again, off again efforts to gather facts from genealogy sources and glean details from my mother, I kept hitting a brick wall. The names I knew of did not bring up anything determinable in census records, or in birth or death records, for that matter. The surname I was investigating was not excessively common, but it was common enough that there was too much room for error. I was losing hope that I would find my father while he was still alive. Still, that weekend with my friends renewed my inspiration, and I came away with a determination to think the problem out anew. After all, I was a genealogist, wasn't I? Well, I was beginning to have my doubts.

The path my search took next convinced me how important it is to never make narrow assumptions in genealogy, or to take passed-down information completely on faith. Never!

I decided to stop searching for my father. Yes, I did! Instead, I began to focus on finding some of his relatives. In 1949, my mother had gone on a Fourth of July picnic with the young man who would later become my father (JM), and some of his relatives. There were several photographs taken that day, and among them was a photo of a man who, I was told, was JM's brother. The brother, his wife, and two young children posed together in a group, and my mother had written their names on the verso of the photograph.

I knew that my father and his family were most likely from Oklahoma. Some of them had left Oklahoma for military enlistment during World War II, staying in northern California after the war to work as migrant fruit pickers, among other jobs. I was uncertain of my father's actual birthplace, but searching records for Oklahoma and surrounding states was the only thing I could do. To top things, I would later find out that my father's real name was not exactly what I was told. I eventually had more success using his nickname.

It had been awhile since I had done any serious looking, so I tried again and used the names of the "brother" and his wife. There was a match among the burial records for Bryan County, Oklahoma, and two matches on family member trees on RootsWeb ( The birth dates for the deceased couple were about right, and the dates matched those associated with the same names in the RootsWeb family trees. I e-mailed the owners of the two family trees in question to see if I could glean any more details.

One of the family tree owners turned out to be doing extensive research on the family line to prove her eligibility for membership in DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). But, was it MY family line? Then, she typed the magic words: "I know a very nice lady in Bryan County, Oklahoma who has an older brother named 'JM.'"


After getting the nice lady's phone number in Oklahoma, I waited for an opportune afternoon and came home from work a little early. Sweating, and sick to my stomach with my nervous system on full alert, I locked myself inside the spare bedroom, picked up my cell phone and made the call. I bit down on my lip while considering my first words. How absurd would they sound to the person on the other end of the connection? Suddenly, a sweet, feminine voice with a lilting Oklahoma accent said: "Hello?"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Best Laid Genealogical Plans...

...sometimes don't turn out the way you planned.

Last summer, I "discovered" my birth father. After nearly fifty years of wondering, I finally found him. The yearning to know, or know about, a birth parent is a familiar one. Although some of these quests culminate on a happy note, many go nowhere at all, or instead, render disappointment. I always thought the quest for my genetic paternal heritage would be the type that went nowhere. I had almost given up trying. Instead, the search has, remarkably, gone somewhere, but not in the direction I'd hoped.

Soon after my sister was born, when I was about seven or eight, my mother asked me to come into the living room. I observed her standing there, and sensed she was somewhat agitated. Mom then proceeded to tell me about my father, whom I will refer to as "JM." She was concerned that I would eventually hear about my origins through another relative if she did not tell me first. She ended with admonishing me to not say a word about it to anyone. I do not remember being shocked or upset at the news. I only remember listening intently and asking a few questions, and being left in a "hmm, isn't that interesting" frame of mind. But, I was a young child at the time, and a dutiful daughter at that. I never wanted to push against parental authority, so it wasn't until I was an adult that the need to know more burned in me.

A mere passion to know did not get me anywhere, however. As many women of her generation, my mother believes in "letting bygones be bygones." She carries a certain amount of embarrassment and hurt feelings regarding the outcome of the relationship, although she has always loved me with all of her heart. She chose to not marry JM when he proposed to her, and for her own good reasons. But, think of the stigma she faced in the 1950s as a single mother. I consider her a very brave woman for making the decision she did. She lived with an aunt at the time, and they traded babysitting duties and worked shifts at the cannery in order to make a go of things. They came from Minnesota farming stock, and one did what one had to do, without complaint. She has always been the most selfless, fairest, and loving mother, in spite of the guilt she has always carried deep inside.

Mom and me

There is a basic human need to know about our origins. Where did I come from? What traits do I share with my family and ancestors? What is my family history? It is something of a curse on those who are tenacious and will not accept no for an answer. Throughout my adult years, I periodically pressed my mother for answers, which was not often. I could not bear to bring up the ghosts of the past when it hurt, and even angered her, so much.

Still, I tried for years to make some headway into searching for my father and his family, but none of the information I had was detailed enough, or certain enough. It was not until I borrowed my mother's photograph albums for genealogical research on her family (with her full permission) that I rediscovered the photographs she had hurriedly shown me, so long ago. The precious few photographs were still there... she had not destroyed them!

How those photographs played into the genealogical find of a lifetime will be addressed in Part II of "The Best Laid Genealogical Plans."